The Real Movement

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Month: November, 2017

Postone on the value of the commodity in capitalism

From my last post, I asserted, following Postone’s reading of Marx, that the categories of capital are specific to capital, but what does this mean? If I am correct in my restatement of Postone in this post, the answer will surprise you as much as it did me.

Let’s take this passage from Postone, for instance:

At the heart of this analysis is a distinction Marx explicitly draws between value – as the historically specific, structuring form of wealth and social mediation in capitalism – from what he calls material wealth, which is measured by the amount produced and is a function of knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Material wealth is mediated by social relations extrinsic to itself. Value, according to Marx, is a self-mediating form of wealth, and is essentially temporal. It is constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.

I had to read this passage several time, almost word by word, before Postone’s argument made sense to me. To demonstrate his argument let me paraphrase it as I have done before by substituting “wages” for the term “value”:

At the heart of this analysis is a distinction Marx explicitly draws between [wages] – as the historically specific, structuring form of wealth and social mediation in capitalism – from what he calls material wealth, which is measured by the amount produced and is a function of knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Material wealth is mediated by social relations extrinsic to itself. [Wages], according to Marx, is a self-mediating form of wealth, and is essentially temporal. [Wages are] constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.

Following Postone, I argue that the commodity is not the commodity as it is understood in various commodity producing societies, but is specific to capital, i.e., when we speak of the commodity in capitalist society, we refer solely to labor power, the specific form of the commodity native to that society. Likewise, this means that value is not value as it is understood in various value producing societies, but is specific to capital, i.e., when we speak of value in capitalist society, we refer solely to the value of labor power or wages, the specific form of value native to that society.

Marx, says Postone, explicitly draws a distinction between wages as “the historically specific, structuring form of wealth and social mediation in capitalism – from what he calls material wealth, which is measured by the amount produced and is a function of knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor.”

On the one hand, material wealth, as it is understood generically, is mediated by wages; on the other hand, wages are a self-mediating form of wealth, constituted solely by the expenditure of socially necessary labor-time.

To put this in the simplest possible terms, the value of generic commodities is measured in terms of the wages expended on their production; while the wage itself is solely measured by the socially necessary labor time required for its production.

This has such fucking deep implications that it would be impossible to address them all fully here.

Essentially, Postone is saying that in the capitalist mode of production, the idea that the value of a generic commodity is equal to its socially necessary labor time may be mistaken. In fact, in the capitalist mode of production labor power may be the only commodity whose value is equal to the socially necessary labor time required for its production.

I think that this would be in keeping with Postone’s argument that the abstract and general character of commodities are valid in their abstract generality only for capitalist society.

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Postone on the specificity of the commodity in capital

Some thoughts on section III of Postone’s essay, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading.

Following on my last post, “What Postone thinks he can explain”, here Postone tackles the specificity of capitalist categories:

“Marx explicitly states in the Grundrisse that his fundamental categories are not transhistorical, but historically specific. Even categories such as money and labor that appear transhistorical because of their abstract and general character, are valid in their abstract generality only for capitalist society, according to Marx.”

Here Postone clarifies that the categories of Capital are not to be understood transhistorically, but only as they appear in the capitalist mode of production.

What does this mean?

In the case of the commodity, Postone explains, Marx “does not refer to commodities, as they might exist in many different kinds of societies.” In the capitalist mode of production the only real commodity immanent (native? peculiar?) to that form of society is labor power. While commodities might be produced in many different forms of society, labor power is the only commodity specific to capitalism.

Postone explains the significance of this specification of the commodity in its capitalist form, i.e., as labor power:

“Marx takes the term and uses it to refer to the most basic social relation of capitalist society, its fundamental form of social mediation and structuring principle. This form, according to Marx, is characterized by a historically specific dual character (use value and value). He then seeks to unfold the nature and underlying dynamic of capitalist modernity from the dual character of this basic structuring form, from the interactions of its constitutive dimensions. At the heart of his analysis is the idea that labor in capitalism has a unique socially mediating function that is not intrinsic to laboring activity transhistorically.”

The use value of labor power is that it is the sole source of value and surplus value; while the value of labor power is expressed in the wages paid for labor power. What labor in the capitalist mode of production produces, in first place, is the labor power of society, not yards of linen or coats. Under the capitalist mode of production labor is transformed from being simply a means to producing shoes, coats and linen to an activity that mediates [expands?] itself, i.e., to wage labor.

Wage labor is not labor as it is understood transhistorically; it is relentlessly self-expanding labor:

“In Marx’s mature works, then, the notion of the unique centrality of labor to social life is not a transhistorical proposition. Rather, it refers to the historically specific constitution by labor in capitalism of a form of social mediation that fundamentally characterizes that society. By unfolding this mediation, Marx tries to socially ground and elucidate basic features of capitalist modernity, such as its overarching historical dynamic.”

*****

As a side note, Postone gets bonus points here, I think. In my opinion he scores a direct hit on the Soviet mode of production. The one characteristic the Soviet mode of production definitely has in common with the West is that labor power was sold as a commodity. Postone has greatly simplified his problem here.

What Postone thinks he can explain

According to Postone, the term “capitalism” has been reintroduced as a conception allowing us to grasp our present times. Capitalism should first and foremost be understood as a historically specific form of social life that fundamentally transformed and constitutes the globe. A theory that could adequately grasp the dynamic character of this form of social life can most rigorously be developed on the basis of a renewed reading of Marx’s mature works.

Although I fundamentally agree with Postone on this point, his recent talk, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading, gives me the opportunity to try to poke holes in an approach I mostly agree with.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Postone’s assertion that value is anachronistic

Anachronism: A chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of persons, events, objects, or customs from different periods of time.

Here is a short passage from Postone:

“a critical theory should be able to problematize its own historical situatedness.”

Jesus Christ, Postone, is this even English? When I first read this statement, I had no idea what the fuck Postone was saying. So I decided to break it into smaller bits:

  • Problematize (Verb)
    1. To make something into a problem.
    2. To consider something as if it were a problem.
    3. (intransitive) To propose problems.
  • Situatedness (Noun)
    1. embeddedness in a culture

Based on this, I would paraphrase Potone’s argument this way:

A critical theory should be able to account for itself within a specific historical context?

Applying this to Postone’s central thesis, I came up with this question:

Why is value anachronistic today, when value was not anachronistic when Marx wrote Capital?

Or. more concretely,

Why are wages anachronistic today, when they were not anachronistic when Marx wrote Capital?

In the second question, I am substituting “value” with “wages”, i.e., with the exchange value of labor power. People might objection to this sort of reduction, but I think it can be defended on the basis that there is only one true capitalist commodity: labor power and hence its exchange value is its wage. Essentially, the only value that counts in the capitalist mode of production is the value (or socially necessary labor time) of labor power.

Stated baldly, (and perhaps entirely too early), Postone must show how it is that wages were once a spur to social production, but now function as a fetter on social production. Postone only makes this assertion by proposing value is anachronistic, he does not prove it. The assertion still remains to be proven.

Not only does Postone fail to prove his central thesis, few of any of his followers have bothered to investigate this rather amazing hypothesis. No one has even bothered to investigate the question of what would constitute proof for his thesis that value (wages) is now anachronistic.

Some writers have suggested that Marx’s theory cannot be proven or disproved; rather, it provides a framework for analysis of social relations within the capitalist mode of production. I vehemently disagree with this view. Marx clearly thought his ideas were scientific and would be subject to empirical evidence that would support or falsify it.

To accept Postone’s reading of Marx implies that this reading must also be verified or falsified on the basis of actual empirical evidence.

Deconstructing Jacques Bidet’s argument against Postone

I went through the same simple exercise with Jacques Bidet’s text, his critique (for lack of a better term) of Postone’s argument.

Again, I begin with a direct quote from Bidet:

In the capitalist class relation, the market form comes to be instrumentalized and oriented toward destructive effects. The market as such is a rational mode of social coordination; but , when it comes under the command of capitalist logic, it becomes an irrational one. In my opinion, Marx’s discussion is not entirely satisfying because from this instrumentalization it does not follow that the market or value must be abolished, but rather that this rational instrument (and its counterpart, the organization, as well ) must collectively be reclaimed – which is a matter for democratic class struggle.

In contrast to Postone, who argues wages themselves are the problem, Bidet see nothing wrong with wages.

In the capitalist class relation, [the buying and selling of labor power] comes to be instrumentalized and oriented toward destructive effects. The [buying and selling of labor power] as such is a rational mode of social coordination; but, when it comes under the command of capitalist logic, it becomes an irrational one. In my opinion, Marx’s discussion is not entirely satisfying because from this instrumentalization it does not follow that the [buying and selling of labor power or wages] must be abolished, but rather that this rational instrument (and its counterpart, the organization, as well ) must collectively be reclaimed – which is a matter for democratic class struggle.

In Bidet’s opinion, it is the buying and selling of labor power for the purpose of capitalist self-expansion — not the buying and selling of labor power itself — that is the problem. We must ‘democratically reclaim’ wage labor.

The problem with this argument is that the buying and selling of labor power is specific to the capitalist mode of production and no other mode of production. Postone’s argument is precisely that wages and labor power are in no sense transhistorical categories.

What’s in a word…

I slightly altered Postone’s text here to strip away the abstract-ness of the categories of analysis he employs in order to uncover the real sense of his discussion. In particular, I replaced the term, value, with the term, wages, to see what impact this has on his meaning.

Is this valid? I cannot say for sure, but it does have a remarkable resonance as a guide to strategy.

Postone:

To claim, as Marx does, that value is historically specific to capitalism is to claim not only that non-capitalist societies were not structured by value, but also that a post-capitalist society would also not be based on value. This, in turn, entails showing that the secular tendency of capital’s development is to render value increasingly anachronistic.

Restated:

To claim, as Marx does, that wages are historically specific to capitalism is to claim not only that non-capitalist societies were not structured by wages, but also that a post-capitalist society would also not be based on wages. This, in turn, entails showing that the secular tendency of capital’s development is to render wages increasingly anachronistic.

If I am reading Postone correctly, then, there is no way that a post-capitalist society can tolerate wages or wage labor in any form. Abolition of capitalism immediately requires abolition of wages and wage labor. Nothing short of this will work for us.

Substitute “wages” in place of “value” …

In this passage, Postone employs the term, value, but he essentially means wages.

As long a communists are unwilling to confront the wages system itself, they are making a choice — unconsciously — for barbarism, i.e., for fascism. This is unacceptable.

“Within the framework of the approach outlined here, the growing anachronistic character of value in the absence of a widespread imaginary of a future beyond value – that is, a post -proletarian future – is having enormously destructive economic, social, political, and environmental consequences. It is capital itself, in its development, which is confronting us with the increasingly stark choice of socialism or barbarism.” -Moishe Postone, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading

Wage slavery will be necessary as long as we tolerate it

According to Postone, so long as wage slavery is allowed to exist it will reconstitute itself as necessary. This is the entire significance of all capitalist crises:

“Within the framework of Marx’s analysis, the drive for ongoing increases in productivity leads to the increasing importance of science and technology in production. That is, the dynamic of capital is historically generativ e of a rapid accumulation of socially general knowledge. The long -term tendency of this historical development is to render production based on labor time – that is, on value and, hence, on proletarian labor – increasingly anachronistic. On the one hand, this opens the possibility of large -scale socially general reductions in labor time, and fundamental changes in the nature and social organization of labor, which suggests that, for Marx, the abolition of capitalism would not entail the self- realization of the proletariat, but its self- abolition.

“And yet, on the other hand, because the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution not only drives productivity forward, but also reconstitutes value, it thereby also structurally reconstitutes the necessity of value -creating labor, that is, proletarian labor.

“The historical dynamic of capitalism, then, increasingly points beyond the necessity of proletarian labor while reconstituting that very necessity. It both generates the possibility of another organization of social life and yet hinders that possibility from being realized.” -The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value: A Marxian Reading, Moishe Postone

The central problem of communist strategy

The central problem of communist strategy consists of this: Capital hates wage labor more than you do.

Although the capitalist are absolutely dependent on wage labor and the proletarians are dependent on it only insofar as they must have wages for their subsistence, as a practical matter the capitalists hate wage labor more than the proletarians. Wage labor itself makes it appear as if the capitalists can do without it, while, at the same time, making it appears as if the proletarians would starve for lack of it.

Communists have never figured out how to develop a strategy that address this peculiar inversion of material reality. They don’t have much time to figure it out.

From futurism.com:

“Last month, reports began circulating claiming Waymo — Google’s/Alphabet’s self-driving division — would be launching a ride-hailing service within the next several months. Now, after eight years of development, Waymo has officially announced their cars are now fully autonomous, and will soon be providing transportation as part of a new ride-hailing service set to launch very soon.”

Can Bidet even read?

Bidet criticizes Postone:

“We know that for Marx, the labour which produces commodities has two ‘sides,’ Seiten. As ‘concrete labour’ it produces use values. As ‘abstract labour,’ that is, ‘expenditure of labour power’ … whatever the form of the object may be, it creates the value of the commodity, which is actualized in the exchanges on the market. But, to his [Marx!!!] way of thinking, concrete labour and abstract labour are, in themselves, the two constitutive traits of labour in general.”(Bidet p. 62, p. 8)

Really? When I produce an object for my own use I have produced a labor value? Of course not. I have produced only a use-value. Value is a social relation.

Did anyone read this essay before it was published?